Update 2011 - Russia

The Russian Federation is home to more than 100 ethnic groups. Of these, 41 are legally recognised as “indigenous, small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East”; others are still striving to obtain this status, which is conditional upon a people having no more than 50,000 members; maintaining a traditional way of life; inhabiting certain remote regions of Russia; and identifying itself as a distinct ethnic community. A definition of “indigenous” without the numerical qualification does not exist in Russian legislation. The small-numbered indigenous peoples number approximately 250,000 individuals and thus make up less than 0.2% of Russia’s population. They traditionally inhabit huge territories stretching from the Kola Peninsula in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, covering around two-thirds of the Russian territory. Their territories are rich in natural resources, including oil, gas and minerals and they are heavily affected by large energy projects such as pipelines and hydroelectric dams.

The small-numbered indigenous peoples are protected by Article 69 of the Russian Constitution and three federal framework laws1 that establish the cultural, territorial and political rights of indigenous peoples and their communities. However, the implementation of the aims and regulations contained in these laws has been complicated by subsequent changes to natural resource legislation and government decisions on natural resource use in the North.

The national umbrella organization – the Russian Association of Numerically Small Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East (RAIPON), established in 1990, represents 41 indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, 40 of which are officially recognized, with one still seeking recognition. RAIPON’s mission is to protect their rights at the national and international level.

Russia has not ratified ILO Convention 169 and abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly on the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.


In 2011, the most pressing problems for indigenous peoples in Russia were access to natural resources and participation in decision making. This situation stems from a lack of:

  • implementation of the law on territories of traditional nature use (TTPs);
  • legislative control over access to land for fishing, hunting, harvesting and reindeer herding;
  • documentation of indigenous self-identity in order to gain specific land use and access rights;
  • protection of the right to a dignified existence in the case of loss of traditional livelihood and low income of indigenous peoples;
  • instruments for indigenous peoples to control the commercial use of lands;
  • instruments for indigenous peoples to represent themselves in decision making related to development;
  • adequate processes for assessing the impacts of development projects on the environment, natural resources, and social and economic development of indigenous peoples.


Failed Expectations

Russia’s indigenous peoples had high hopes for 2011. Within the framework of the 2009-2011 Action Plan for the Implementation of the Concept of the Sustainable Development of Indigenous Small-numbered Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation,2 the government had envisaged improving legislation and solving the above-mentioned problems by the end of 2011. Some of the expected legislative improvements were the following:3

  1. development of the required regulatory documents to establish territories for traditional use of natural resources by indigenous peoples, according to the Federal Law on TTPs;
  2. establishment of model territories for TTPs;
  3. development of a Relationship Strategy between representatives of indigenous peoples and industrial companies operating in their territories and regulations governing compensation for losses sustained by indigenous peoples through damage to their traditional living environment and thereby their traditional way of life;
  4. preparation of proposals to amend the Forest Code, Land Code and Water Code in relation to indigenous peoples’ access to the territories necessary for their traditional economic activities and livelihood at no cost to them;
  5. development of a draft federal law to ensure priority access for indigenous peoples, their communities and other indigenous associations to hunting grounds, game, fishing areas and water resources on their traditional land;
  6. development of regulations related to documents confirming indigenous peoples’ nationalities;
  7. development of proposals concerning forms of representation for indigenous peoples in the legislative (representative) bodies of the public authorities in the Russian Federation’s provinces.

Legislative proposals developed by the Ministry of Regional Development (MINREG)4 over the period 2009-2011 relating to the first five items on this list were inconsistent with existing laws and consequently rejected by the government. MINREG proposed draft laws that further derogated the rights granted by current legislation. For example, according to a new draft law on territories of traditional nature use, which would replace the law of 2001, the TTPs would lose their status as specially protected territories, which would mean depriving them of their environmental protection. This contradicts the Russian federal government instruction dated April 14, 2009 No.ДК-П-16-2033, which implied that there would be a special focus on retaining the status of specially protected territories in the course of developing the new version of the law.

Furthermore, the proposed draft law on TTPs prevents the numerically small indigenous peoples from implementing their initiative to establish TTPs and the possibility of TTP joint management. The provincial and municipal authorities will lose their power to establish TTPs at the regional and local levels. The legitimacy of already established TTPs will, in some regions, be jeopardized. MINREG has been elaborating this draft law for three years now but it has never been presented to the State Duma. In practice, this behavior prevents implementation of the 2001 Law on traditional territories and thus the establishment of TTPs. As of 2011, no nationally recognized TTPs had yet been established.

As for the draft laws on fishing and hunting, these only allow indigenous peoples to fish and hunt for food, without the right to sell the surplus, as has been the practice for the past 300 years.

RAIPON contributed to developing the above draft laws by proposing its own versions but these were rejected by the government.

Legislative activities concerning items 3 and 4 above are not yet complete. Legislative initiatives concerning items 6 and 7 were not taken forward. RAIPON’s legislative proposals for these items were also rejected.

Consequently, in 2011, the government’s plans for Russia’s indigenous peoples were not fulfilled and the expected legislative reform regulating indigenous peoples’ rights never materialised.

Monitoring and assessment of the government’s activities are important in RAIPON’s work and were addressed by a special seminar in September 2011. As a result, RAIPON’s Coordination Council demanded that the President and the Chairman of the government explain the reasons for the government’s failure to implement the approved plans for indigenous issues for 2009-2011, and proposed including RAIPON representatives in the working groups for implementation of the plans for 2012-2015.


Access to resources and a dignified existence

According to three federal laws adopted or revised since 2001 (the Forestry Code5 2005, the Law On Fishing and Conservation of Water Biological Resources6 2006 and the Federal Law On Hunting and Conservation of Hunting Grounds and Amendments to Specific Regulations of the RF 20107) all forest, hunting and fishing areas, including those in the territories inhabited by indigenous peoples, may be granted to commercial companies on the basis of long-term licenses obtained by tender. The license duration is usually 20 years or more. This means that even if the government takes measures to implement the law on TTPs, many of the land areas and resources necessary for the indigenous peoples are already under private control, protected by long-term contracts.

The Land Code, Forestry Code and Water Code have no norms to limit tenders and auctions of land, forest and water areas in the territories where indigenous peoples live and use the natural resources, leading to reduced hunting grounds and pastures for indigenous peoples.

The law, which gives indigenous peoples the right to hunt and fish for their own consumption without any restriction or official permits, even in areas under the control of commercial license holders, is only declaratory. Firstly, inspectors request documentary confirmation that a hunter or fisherman belongs to an indigenous people. However, as outlined above, the law to establish such identification certification has not yet been drafted. Secondly, the law has no regulation that obliges the license holders to provide access for indigenous users to their areas. Such legislation creates grounds for endless conflicts and lawsuits where indigenous peoples have to defend their right to traditional livelihood.

In many regions, indigenous peoples establish small local community-based enterprises called obshchinas.8 In small, remote indigenous settlements, these serve as the only source of employment and income. Since 2008, however, obshchinas have lost their access to fishing, hunting areas and pastures in many regions and, with this, their economic basis for development.


On August 31, 2011 the fishing permits of the indigenous peoples on the Amur River (Khabarovsky Kray) expired. At that time, the spawning season had not yet started – it was a year of late spawning. Fish is commonly known to be the main food for the Nanais and Ulchis. The indigenous peoples are wondering why, according to the new procedure of quota allocation, they have to prove their right to fish in their traditional areas of residence to Moscow officials.

Apparently, the indigenous peoples of Buryatia – Evenks and Soyots – will not know the taste of first fish this summer. The careless Ministry of Agriculture and Food is still in the process of allocating fishing quotas for 2011. By doing that the Ministry is violating the rights of indigenous peoples to traditional food and livelihood. … Now they are looking at the approved annual 70kg of fish per capita again. The ministry officials think that 70kg is too much, - Anna Naikanchina, a member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues reports.

Oil company pays US$1,700 (50,000 Russian roubles) for 600 kilometers of oil-contaminated rivers

Tomsk Oblast is the traditional territory of the Selkups, Khanty, Evenks, Tchulymtsy and Keto.9 Unfortunately, extremely plentiful deposits of oil, gas and other natural resources can be found in their territory.

The OJSC Tomskneft VNK company holds 24 licenses for oil and gas production and produces up to 75% of all oil in Tomsk Oblast.10 On February 6, 2011 an oil pipeline owned by OJSC Tomskneft VNK ruptured in the Kargasoksky Region, where it crosses the River Yagyl-Yakh. According to the company’s own technical investigation, the oil spill amounted to 0.06 tons (60 kg), and the affected area was 130 m2. At the same time, OJSC Tomskneft VNK announced that a full package of measures was being taken to localize the accident’s negative impact. However, in April 2011, residents of Novy Vasyugan village 300 km from the rupture’s location reported that dead fish and oil slicks could be seen on the surface of the Vasyugan River, a tributary of the Yagyl Yakh, during the spring freshet.

Only when the mass media began to report the issue was an administrative action brought against OJSC Tomskneft VNK.

According to the Environmental Prosecution Office, under a ruling dated April 27, OJSC Tomskneft VNK was found guilty of an administrative infringement. The company was fined 50,000 roubles (US$1,700).

The people of Kargasoksky Region were outraged at such an insignificant fine and remain convinced that the real amount of the oil spill is several tens or even hundreds of times larger:

We knew about the accident as early as in winter, - a resident from Kargaska says, - but the people had no idea that the situation with fish would be as bad as that. The distance from the site of accident to the Yagyl-Yakh estuary is 70 km; absolutely all the fish died there and they will continue to die because a part of the oil sediment is on the bottom or penetrated into the silt. 600 km along the Vasyugan River, even in the lower reaches, the fish are not edible – it is all diesel oil.11

By early May, the situation could quite fairly be considered an environmental disaster. The Yagyl-Yakh River will be contaminated for several years to come and, in those years, it will not be suitable for fishing.


Evenkia hydroelectric dam pops up again

In November 2011, the Deputy General Manager and Chief Engineer of “Lenhydroproject”, a subsidiary of RusHydro, Russia’s largest hydropower company, announced in a lecture shown on the Russian TV channel “Kultura” that the “development of project documentation for the construction of the Evenki hydroelectric power station on Lower Tunguska River is complete. The project is undergoing approval at various levels.” This came as a surprise to many who had strongly opposed this dam. If built, the Evenkia Hydroelectric power plant will produce the world’s largest artificial lake, covering 9,000 square kilometers, will deprive up to 7,000 indigenous Evenks of their livelihood and submerge one million hectares of virtually untouched pristine forest (see also The Indigenous World 2011). During the public hearings in the Legislative Assembly of Krasnoyarsk Territory, which took place in 2009, experts and MPs lashed out at the plans by RusHydro and Lenhydroproject to build Russia’s largest hydroelectric power station thousands of miles from consumers. In 2010, Rushydro company shelved plans to construct this dam (see also The Indigenous World 2011). After that, the dam also disappeared from the “Strategy for socio-economic development to 2020”.

However, in December 2011, Sergei Voskresensky, general director of Lenhydroproject, responding to an inquiry by “Plotina.net”, partly retracted the statements of his chief engineer, pointing to the exclusion of the Evenkia dam from the state planning scheme and conceding that ultimately, the decision to build the dam would have to be taken by the state authorities, not the company.12 The environmental impact assessment procedure is nonetheless ongoing.

Both the state and Rushydro remain determined to substantially expand hydropower in Siberia and the Russian Far East. According to a new “territorial planning scheme for Krasnoyarsk Territory” in the basin of the Yenisei River, which covers the period until 2030, the plan is to construct seven new large hydropower plants. If they are built, approx. 2.11 million hectares will be flooded. This will lead to the resettlement of many indigenous Evenks and will have serious environmental impacts. Among the most active lobbyists for the Evenki hydroelectric projects were the companies “Rusal” and “RusHydro”. One of the potential main consumers of the electricity generated in Evenkia is China. The proponents of the project believe that the most promising dams will be the Evenki, Turukhanskaya, Osinovskaya and Igarka dams on the Yenisei River, the Podkamennotungusskaya and Ust-Podkamennotungusskaya dams on the river Stony Tunguska (Podkamennaya Tunguska), and Motyginskaya hydropower plant on the Angara River.

Speaking at the sixth congress of deputies of Krasnoyarsk Territory, the chairman of the Legislative Assembly of the Region, Alexander Uss, said, “For very profound reasons, the people of Krasnoyarsk oppose the idea of economic development at any cost, without consideration of the consequences for the environment and for human health. And their ‘no’ to the construction of the Evenki hydroelectric power station was a visible confirmation of this fact.”


Participation in decision making

Indigenous peoples’ participation in decision making is provided for by the law “On guarantees of the rights of indigenous small-numbered peoples”13 adopted on April 30, 1999, although the procedures for such participation have not yet been developed (see also The Indigenous World 2011).

Reports from the areas of indigenous peoples’ settlement confirm that they most often learn about the industrial development of their traditional livelihood areas after such development has begun or when an accident takes place; their protests are ignored and their losses are not compensated.

According to the mass media and indigenous peoples’ organizations,14 in December 2010, 213 people from Tyanya village, Olekminsky Region, sent a message to the presidents and governments of Russia and Yakutia, calling on them to protect the indigenous peoples’ territories:

In the past industrial projects affected peripheries of our territories and hunters could find new hunting areas, reindeer herds could find new pastures, and our territory and environment remained pristine and retained their natural beauty. Today everything is different. The designed gas pipeline will lie across the heart of our land, and this will put our existence under threat. The gas corporation insists on the second option: it will help the company save 49 billion roubles. But is money more important than a whole nation whose culture, language and way of life are priceless?” 15

In Russia, no instruments have been developed with which to implement the principle of free, prior, and informed consent for the use of lands traditionally occupied by indigenous peoples, as required by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

In March 2011, RAIPON and IWGIA jointly submitted an alternative report16 to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which considered Russia’s fifth periodic report on its compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)17 during its 46th session (2-20 May 2011). This alternative report was a follow-up to reports submitted to preceding sessions in 199718 and 200319 as well as to parallel reports submitted to other UN treaty bodies and human rights mechanisms. The report highlights Russia’s failures to comply with its human rights obligations under ICERSC vis-àvis the indigenous peoples of the North in a variety of areas. This includes the right to self-determination, to adequate food, to subsistence and culture as well the right to education and to health. In most of these areas, very little progress has been noted since the submission of the first alternative report, while in some of them the situation has deteriorated seriously. Throughout the last decade, Russia has pursued a policy of privatising forests, land, waters and many other resources. Indigenous communities are deprived of fishing and hunting rights, or these rights are subject to highly bureaucratic and costly procedures whereby they often have to compete with commercial entities for their own traditional lands and resources, as also illustrated in this article.

In this context, the Committee expressed its concern and asked Russia to “seek the free informed consent of indigenous communities and give primary consideration to their special needs prior to granting licences to private companies for economic activities on territories traditionally occupied or used by those communities.”20

Furthermore, the Committee, in keeping with the conclusions drawn in the alternative report, noted that even well-intentioned initiatives such as the policy framework for the sustainable development of the indigenous peoples in the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation and the action plan for its implementation (see above) have yielded very little concrete outcomes. It called on Russia to intensify its efforts to implement the plan and echoed earlier recommendations made by CESCR, CERD and other human rights bodies to the effect that, more than ten years after its adoption, Russia should implement the Federal Law on Territories of Traditional Nature Use, the only federal legislation providing a protective regime for indigenous territories.


Notes and references

1    The three framework laws are: 1) On the guarantees of the rights of the indigenous small-numbered peoples of the Russian Federation (1999); 2) On general principles of the organization of communities [obschinas] of the indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of Russian Federation; and 3) On Territories of Traditional Nature Use of the indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation (2001).

2    RF Government Resolution dated 28.08.2009 No. 1245-p.р

3    RF Government Resolution dated 23.06.2008 No. 895-p.р

4    MINREG is the Ministry empowered to address the issues of indigenous peoples in Russia.

5    “Forestry Code”.

6    “On Fishing and Conservation of Aquatic Biological Resources”.

7    “On Hunting and Conservation of Hunting Resources and on Amendments to Specific Regulations of the RF”.

8    Obschina - “community”. Obschinas emerged in the early 1990s; they were supposed to perform both economic functions and functions of self- government. The status of obschinas is determined by the federal law “On Principles of Organization of Obschinas of Numerically Small Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation”.

9    The small-numbered indigenous peoples of the North in Tomsk Oblast are the Selkups, the Khanty, the Evenks, the Tchulymtsy and the Keto. They number approximately 3,500 people. They live in seven regions of the Oblast: in Aleksandrovsky, Kargasoksky, Parabelsky, Kolpashevsky, Verkhneketsky, Chulymsky and Asinovsky. These regions are a traditional territory of these peoples’ residence and livelihood.

10  http://www.tomskneft.ru/social-responsibility/social-policy/

11  The information was received from indigenous peoples and local residents of Kargasoksky Region, Tomsk Oblast, as well as from the following Internet-sites: http://www.tv2.tomsk.ru/category/tegi/razliv-nefti; http://www.pressoboz.ru; http://raipon.info/

12  http://www.plotina.net/evges-yurkevich-otvet/

13  Russian title: “O garantiiakh prav korennykh, malochislennykh narodov Severa, Sibiri i Dal‘nego Vostoka Rossiiskoi Federatsii

14  The Indigenous World, Living Arctic, Vol 27 (2011), p 45

15  Yakut Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North

16  Downloadable from http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cescr/docs/ngos/IWGIA_RAIPON_RussianFederation_ CESCR46.pdf

17  UN document E/C.12/RUS/5.

18  http://www.infoe.de/report.html

19  http://www.infoe.de/report-2003.pdf

20  Concluding Observations of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - Russian Federation UN Document E/C.12/RUS/CO/5.



Olga Murashko is a Russian anthropologist and one of the co-founders of IWGIA Moscow. She works as a consultant for the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) and coordinates RAIPON’s advocacy work.

Polina Shulbaeva is the director of the Indigenous Legal Informational Centre “Kogolika” (Swallow) in the Tomsk Oblast.

Johannes Rohr is a German-born historian who has been working with indigenous peoples’ organizations in Russia since 1995, focusing on their economic, social and cultural rights. He has also worked for FIAN, INFOE and IWGIA. He has been working for Wikimedia in Germany since 2011.